No. 12 Baylor at No. 15 Oklahoma has long been circled as a crucial game in the Big 12 race.
And Bob Stoops' Sooners, who have rarely lost to a Big 12 team two years in a row, have surely been itching for payback for the Bears' 41-12 shellacking last season. Both have Big 12 championship hopes, while Baylor has the clearer possibility of a Playoff berth if it wins out.
Norman, Okla., used to be the place where Big 12 teams could never get a win, but that has changed since Texas Tech shocked the Sooners in 2011 and Kansas State scored back-to-back victories there. That said, there's a reason OU, No. 6 in F/+, is a 5-point favorite.
There are also Baylor's well-documented struggles to win on the road, with their best seasons under Briles coinciding with odd-numbered seasons, in which they play Texas and Oklahoma in Waco rather than on the road.
In the end, each team will have to answer a key question.
Will Oklahoma settle on its identity?
Heading into this season, Oklahoma changed up defensive personnel to feature star linebacker Eric Striker at the field linebacker position, previously occupied by a nickelback. This proved problematic when it turned out Oklahoma couldn't mount a great pass rush without involving Striker and teams used various spread alignments to keep Striker away without having to block him.
Oklahoma doesn't have a lockdown corner on the roster now that Aaron Colvin is in the NFL, so pass rush is essential to stopping a spread passing game like Baylor's. What the Sooners do have is excellent coverage safeties in senior Quentin Hayes and freshman Steven Parker.
The obvious solution for the Sooners is to sub out a defensive lineman or starting jack linebacker, like Geneo Grissom, move Striker to the short side of the field, where he can't be easily displaced, and play a third safety, to bolster the Sooners' coverage against Baylor's vertical slot routes.
If Oklahoma insists on a slavish devotion to its 3-4 base defense against the Bears, it will have to live with an outcome in which Striker cannot impact the game because he's lined up halfway to the sideline, all of its pressures are obvious, and Baylor is able to routinely get receivers like KD Cannon and Corey Coleman matched up against linebackers.
On the other hand, if OU starts Parker or another superior coverage player at safety and Hayes at nickel (or vice versa), then the following alignment becomes possible:
Striker, represented by the S, can now line up much tighter, across from the tight end/H-back.
Or, when Baylor goes to four-receiver sets ...
... wherever OU wants to put him. He'll undoubtedly spend most of his time on the edge, where his speed is most devastating.
Oklahoma's two inside linebackers, Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, are quite athletic and allow OU a lot of flexibility to bring big man-blitzes to accompany Striker or drop back and allow defensive backs to get in on the action. These two lead the team in tackles at 61 and 60, respectively, while Striker is the lead disruptor, with 5.5 sacks and four other tackles for loss on the year.
This 3-3-5 formation was the game plan Oklahoma followed in 2013 against the Bears. It was quietly one of the more successful attempts to control Baylor in 2013 -- the fourth-lowest yards-per-play average Baylor produced -- but was foiled by a combination of the Sooners' own inept offense and OU's front eventually wearing out against the run. Expect it to return for Round 2, as the Sooners re-embrace a nickel defense.
Offensively, the Sooners have maintained an identity as a rushing offense that uses bigger personnel groupings in sets like the diamond formation. It's recently reached a new level, thanks to the health of backup quarterback Cody Thomas, which has allowed the Sooners to feel comfortable utilizing starter Trevor Knight as a runner; 39 of his 53 carries this year have come in the last four games. That makes the Sooner offense difficult to handle for teams that will load the box, like Baylor.
In the diamond formation in particular, the Sooners are able to attack multiple points of the line of scrimmage with lead blocks and fantastic runners:
This play has inside zone blocking, but tight end Blake Bell blocks the edge while fullback Aaron Ripkowski and running back Samaje Perine lead through the cutback lane. It's difficult for the defense to get numbers to the point of attack, particularly with Knight taking a misdirection counterstep behind Bell before cutting behind his two lead blockers. Iowa State is in an eight-man front, but still overwhelmed at the point of attack.
Now notice the variety of ways in which the Sooners can disperse lead blockers and runners across the front from this set:
Here, they have a lead blocker on the perimeter to run traditional zone stretch. Then they come back with zone-read:
If all that wasn't enough, the Yeti himself (Bell) has become more involved in the receiving game, where his 6'6 frame causes huge matchup problems and provides a red zone target (he has four TD receptions).
The Bears' preferred strategy of loading up the box with numbers should meet its match in the Sooners' diamond formations. OU will meet those numbers, then pit Baylor's small backfield against powerful people like the 243-pound Perine and the 260-pound Ripkowski and Bell.
Should Oklahoma use its personnel optimally, it'll have options for attacking the Bear defense with the run, keeping QB Bryce Petty off the field, and matching up in the middle against Baylor's difficult vertical passing game.
Can Baylor beat this style of defense on the road?
Petty's road record against defenses that prefer to play middle-of-field-closed defenses (with a safety deep in front of the quarterback) like Cover 3, man free, or fire zones has been pretty poor over the last two seasons.
After Oklahoma's failure, the Oklahoma State Cowboys also challenged Petty in this fashion and got him all out of sorts in a blowout victory. In 2014, Texas and West Virginia employed similar schemes and also found success. Petty's passer rating against the two was 104.20 and 111.71, respectively, well below his 165.7 career mark.
The challenge has been that Baylor has lacked players who can reliably beat good man coverage with option routes. Petty has a tendency to look to Antwan Goodley in key moments, and opposing teams have found Goodley's route tree on the outside to be containable with good cornerbacks.
Additionally, when these teams bring extra pass rushers, they can still play man with a deep safety while having extra help against the run. This limits the Bears' run game responses. Oklahoma used this effectively in 2013, until its front wore down.
On top of this, Oklahoma State in 2013 and then Texas and West Virginia added three-man rush schemes that allow the defense to have the safeties sit outside the hash marks on top of the deep routes, another player in the deep middle, and the corners roving the flats:
This has proven vexing for Petty, since Baylor's option routes have the receivers run to open grass while Petty anticipates where that space will be. There isn't a good deal of open grass against this coverage, since the safety makes the vertical route unsafe. The corners and linebackers are in the passing windows on the comeback routes.
The only answer for Baylor is to run the ball or for Petty to beat downfield coverage in the middle of the field, where he's less accurate.
West Virginia added one more layer to the manual on defending the Petty Bears: six- and seven-man blitzes. Many teams have tried to stop the Bears by playing quarters coverage, only to find that on play-action, their safeties are left without underneath help from the linebackers and basically asked to play man coverage against burners like Levi Norwood with lots of grass around.
The six-/seven-man blitz acknowledges this. It mitigates the risk by bringing more pressure than Baylor can block, even with max protection.
Petty has become comfortable sitting behind max protection with time to read his option routes and get the ball out.
However, West Virginia demonstrated that his internal clock can be confused by playing tight man coverage while alternating max coverage and max blitz. One snap, he's finding himself having to progress through his reads more slowly than he's used to. Then once he's slowed himself down, the opponent is bringing the house and giving him no time.
Oklahoma's pass rush weapons are much more dangerous than West Virginia's. Can Petty handle it? Is he actually ready for Oklahoma?
The answer for the Bears is simple. They just need all of their receivers to click and for Petty to trust each of them, rather than just Goodley. Freshman Cannon is the most talented on the roster, but he's caught just 11 balls in three Big 12 road games for a total of just 66 yards. If healthy, Coleman can be a featured option to relieve pressure off Goodley, but Petty has to find him.
Does Petty have the chemistry with these younger receivers to go into Norman and drill the Sooners with Baylor's execution-based passing game?
Oklahoma desperately needs this. It looked recharged and purposeful off its bye week, dismantling Iowa State. It's already deployed solid defensive plans against Baylor in the past and now has more options, thanks to the work of Texas and West Virginia this season.
Baylor has to develop answers for these emerging countermeasures as well as learning to play at a high level on the road.
That challenge, combined with what "Big Game Bob" has surely been preparing, suggests the Bears' Playoff hopes end here.